The Fading Bitterness of Retired Dancers

156038_10150091898005067_1445863_n

I was sitting with one of my favorite dance partners catching up over lunch nearly 3,000 miles away from the city and company that we had danced in for 4 years together. At the time, I was still dancing with Pacific Northwest Ballet. But my former colleague had moved on from her career and was transitioning into her second one. As we caught up over avocado toast, figs, brie, and honey from Le Pain Quotidien, I was struck by my friend’s perspective of her career and how it had changed so drastically since her final years dancing. As with many professional dancers who don’t track in the direction that they dreamed their career would go, she had become quite bitter and jaded during the final years of her time sharing the stage with me and our fellow dancers. While she didn’t project this onto her colleagues, she was quite vocal about the day-to-day happenings she was not pleased with and with situations (like casting) that she felt were unfair. Long gone was the woman who approached her dance career with a sharp, sarcastic wit. I was now conversing with a former dancer who spoke of fond memories of her decade dancing with one of America’s top ballet companies. I was confused.

What I was experiencing sitting across the table from my sentimental friend was something that I wouldn’t understand until I hung up my performance slippers and stepped into the same retirement shoes that she was wearing. Dancers are a very unique bunch with quirks that go well beyond their obsessive drive to perfect their technique. The best example I have of this in my own life was when I was sharing drinks with a non-dance friend back in 2013. After they intently listened to me discussing my travels as I freelanced around the nation, they responded with an inquiry that didn’t relate to the experiences I mentioned or my success in cultivating a unique career-style. He instead threw this query at me, “Do you find that you are generally a negative person?” In my baffled response to his question, I think it took me about 30 seconds of non-coherent starts and stops to find some sort of rebuttal. While I just thought I was having a normal conversation in my typical brand of candor, this friend had touched upon a personality trait that is bred into a majority of ballet dancers.

There must be a reason that many dancers are known to skew towards the spectrum of negativity. While there seems to be work on resolving this item (I’ve discussed emotional training in dance on my former blog), many students in my generation and before were taught that positive affirmation of your successes in dance training could possibly cause a dancer to become complacent about their technique and prevent them from continuing to critique, analyze, and improve their dancing. I believe that this style of training tends to develop young minds that are overly critical of things in their lives well beyond their dancing. Beyond this assumption, considering the fact that hiring, casting, and promotion are greatly based upon the opinions (vs. factual evidence of success) of those in artistic leadership roles, dancers tend to learn how to cope with disappointments that don’t always have clear reasoning more often than enjoying the elation and positivity surrounding the harder to get, exciting successes. When a dancer with high hopes for their career finds that they are coping with more disappointments than successes, they may become bitter about more than just the major upsets that they experience. Lastly, dance is an exhaustively difficult career that requires daily class, hours of time working into and through exhaustion, and pain and sore muscles that stay with you well beyond your time onstage. When a dancer wakes up in the morning and it hurts just to get out of bed, they may not be thinking positive thoughts about how lucky they are to get to dance for a living. In my deductive analysis, it makes sense to me that dancers tend to be negative or bitter about more in their lives than they are positive. It is infused into our DNA.

Kerollis-Corsaire.JPG
Le Corsaire (Photo: Dmitri Papadakos)

As I mentioned previously, it took until I was out of my performance career to really understand why I often discussed things in my career with a tinge to full-on negativity and bitterness. Just like everything in life, dance will eventually take everything back that you have worked so, so hard to achieve. Only this happens at a much more exponential rate than other careers and life happenings. When I joined Pacific Northwest Ballet, I was thrilled to get a job with one of my dream companies. But after 7 years existing in the small, insular bubble of our company, I forgot what it was like outside of this organization and didn’t appreciate what I had because I felt stagnant and wasn’t achieving that promotion to Soloist that I felt I had worked for and had proven that I was worthy of. Only when I started dancing for smaller, regional companies as a freelancer did I actually appreciate the financial stability, the quality of work and productions, and the appreciation/treatment given to us as dancers with Pacific Northwest Ballet. Additionally, only now that I am outside of my performance career can I look at the challenges I experienced as a nationally-touring freelancer and be grateful that I got to see the country and learn about organizations and communities of every size and caliber as a part of my job. As the typical saying goes, “Hindsight is 20/20.”

Now that I am retired like my friend who I listened to with curious intrigue about her completely contrasting post-performance personality, this conversation makes so much more sense to me. As more and more of my friends have entered retirement and I have interacted with more dancers who retired before me, I find that the regular frustrations and disappointments of a performance career fade much faster than the aches and pains leftover from the physical commitments we make to our art form. Instead of casting disappointments and studio stresses, dancers remember the sound of the orchestra tuning before an overture begins, that feeling when the curtain flies out and you feel the rush of cold air on your face that immediately precedes the first step of a performance, the camaraderie one experiences achieving superhuman feats alongside their friends, the adrenaline rush and elation that is felt as an audience applauds your efforts, and the hugs and smiles one receives from friends, family, and audience members. Our career field is difficult, yet it is so special. And no matter what a dancer is feeling in the moment while in their career, I promise that almost every one of us will walk away from the stage with nostalgia and mostly positive memories of a dream that few others get to experience.

IMG_2540
(Photo: Jro)
Advertisements

Social Media: Posting as a Role Model

IMG_1187

The first time I heard anything relating to social media was during my time living in the dormitory at the School of American Ballet. There was a young student, who at 16 years old was using the Myspace network as a sort of coming of age and coming out. Essentially, while I didn’t come to know the term social media for years, my first impression of MySpace was that it was a site used for the sexually promiscuous and for those willing to risk their lives in the process of making bad decisions. It probably makes sense why it took another 2 years and the influence of my first love to get me to join a world that would eventually become an integral part of my (and many others) life.

I reluctantly joined MySpace back in 2003 and, like most any Xennial, quickly adjusted to a life where we shared the thoughts inside our heads with anybody who dares to cross our profiles. It only took me a few weeks to go from lurking to writing short blog posts for my friends and colleagues (at the time, I wouldn’t dare let my family see my profile). As I learned that MySpace wasn’t what would eventually become Tinder or Grindr, I began sharing more and more of my daily experiences and personal thoughts. Just like the judgment of my peer at the School of American Ballet, my colleagues at Pacific Northwest Ballet began to judge my decision to share more of my life publicly, both behind my back and to my face. I remember a moment when a Principal dancer who was most rarely kind or friendly towards me pulled me aside and demanded, point blank, that I needed to stop blogging on my MySpace page. I remember the conversation that followed with my (now) husband, where I told him I felt that it was important that I share my life publicly because it was an expression of myself as an artist and human. In 100 years, they may say I was one of the pioneers of social media. My husband’s response (who is Gen X) was supportive, but also stated the fact that he also would never share his personal life in the same way. We spoke at length that night as I evaluated whether I was going to continue down this path of being as publicly honest and straightforward as I could or whether I was going to carefully guard my life experiences to avoid anybody vengeful using my public sharing against me either professionally or personally.

IMG_0935
Life of a Freelance Dancer (Photo: Brian Mengini)

If you are reading this blog, it is quite clear which decision I made. After some time and over 400 blog posts on MySpace, I transitioned my full energy to Facebook. It took me a few years to start writing in any type of blog format again, but it eventually happened. If you don’t know my story, I’ll share it in brief here. But you should really browse my first blog, Life of a Freelance Dancer, if you want the whole story. While I had become adept at using Facebook, my social media expertise didn’t really become apparent until I began blogging again. I didn’t start up my second blog out of boredom, expression, or curiosity of the reactions of others. Instead, I did it out of fear and necessity. After transitioning away from dancing with a major ballet company to stretch myself as an artist with a small, grassroots contemporary ballet company, I became injured and was eventually fired because of this injury. It was too late for me to get healthy enough to participate in audition season and I couldn’t imagine moving again so soon after relocating my home and family 3,000 miles for the job with this company. I knew I could write, but I didn’t know if people would read anything outside of random musings and thoughts from my days. But I pushed forth and began sharing my experiences and thoughts on Life of a Freelance Dancer as I attempted to salvage a failed attempt to try something new with my career. The first handful of posts, I remember friends reaching out and asking for me to stop sharing my blog on Facebook or they would unfriend me. They felt like I was marketing on a personal platform, kind of in the same vain as a pyramid scheme. I pressed forth anyway, and eventually my blog became so popular that I didn’t have to audition for work, I spent nearly 35-40 week’s on the road dancing yearly, hundreds of people were reading my blog daily in over 120 countries around the world, and I was included on a list of 49 Creative Geniuses Who Use Blogging to Promote Their Art. I didn’t quite realize it was happening because I was living it, but my social media star had risen. I had become a role model for many hopeful freelancers, working professionals, and people looking for inspiration in general. It was nice that I didn’t have to worry too much about what I posted because my audience mostly consisted of adults and students in their late teens who were prepping for a career.

1a
My Podcast Logo (Photo: Bill Hebert)

It was thanks to my willingness to offer the most candid presentation of my life and my life’s work that I had achieved all that I had in a short 4 years. After I was featured alongside New York City Ballet Principal Megan Fairchild in the January 2016 issue of Dance Magazine for being an innovator in social media, I was approached by Kimberly Falker of the Premier Dance Network to host my own podcast show on her network and iTunes. Suddenly, I had a massive platform to continue doing something that dancers were never really known for, sharing my voice as a part of my art. My brand is candor and it is daring due to the fact that the dance world doesn’t necessarily function on fact. It can be dangerous to be vocal about the less ideal parts of our art form, like sexual harassment, injury, burn out, anxiety, or emotional training. But my willingness to share my experiences and stories with the dance world and beyond has really pushed me into the spotlight more than I ever was while putting all of my sweat and tears into my performance career.

Now, the point of me sharing all of this information isn’t to create a documented timeline of my social media experience or gloat about my successes that have arisen from being an over-sharer. Instead, I am writing to discuss a challenging topic that I have recently been facing within my personal social media. As my interest in Facebook has steadily declined (mostly due to algorithms, the political mess of 2016, and too much noise instead of personal connection), I have turned more and more of my attention and effort to Instagram. I was quite resistant to join this photo/video sharing network mostly out of fear that it would take up more of my non-existent time. Although I delayed, I knew it was inevitable that I would eventually join this platform and immediately fall in love with this visual app. I’ve always had a knack for taking photos and I love the idea that Instagram offers me the opportunity to show my followers what it looks like to see the world through my eyes. I already had a good following on Facebook and on my Life of a Freelance Dancer blog when I joined. So, I never really felt the need to build an audience of followers beyond my family, friends, colleagues, and peers. That was until my recent falling out of love with Facebook.

As I have transitioned more of my attention to my Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/bkerollis/), I have been slowly gathering followers who enjoy my content and want to follow my career and lifestyle. I feel that I’ve gotten particularly good at cultivating a following within my network just by posting the things that I enjoy and the work that I am doing. These items include dance, city life, skyscrapers, and imagery of my travels. But my wishes to grow a vast audience, brand, and network beyond my daily reach of people I personally interact with has become a challenging conversation that involves who my audience is, what communities I belong to, and my own personal integrity.

For me and my regular brand of candor, I want to post whatever images and content I want to at that moment. But things have changed a lot for me over the past few years. I am no longer backstage dozens upon dozens of time during the year and promoting myself solely as a performing artist. My audience has widened in many ways. I work with students ranging from young hopeful 10 year olds up to recreational 80 year old adults. My audience consists of everybody from small kids to gay men to Broadway dancers, ballet dancers, podcast listeners, blog readers, fans of my photography, parents of my students, and more. As I said earlier, I have been slowly building my Instagram audience. But I now feel ready to go all in to promote my choreography, teaching, and media work to a much larger audience on an international scale. The main challenge here is how does one build an audience with integrity while catering to a range of communities as diverse as my own. I have really struggled with this idea lately and, perhaps, this is the reason that I am ruminating over this publicly. I don’t want to post videos of myself dancing, as I would rather spend my time focusing on making my students into amazing dancers. I already had my performance career. Sometimes, I find it tempting to post practically nude photos of myself to cater to the gay community and gather easy follows. Sex sells and I still have my dancer body, so it could be a cheap sell. But I have children looking at my account, parents monitoring my activities, and being a married man I don’t need to market myself in that way (though I will post the occasional artistic nude-ish photo). I also don’t like to build an audience using hashtags like #followforfollow, as I feel that there is no investment from those followers beyond patting them on the back. I want people who see my content to be invested in what I am doing, sharing, and promoting.

 

cropped-adt-barry-11.jpg
My most artistic “nude-ish” photo (Photo: Shalem Photography)

 

So, at the moment, I am finding myself caught in a social media pickle. How does somebody like me market to a vast audience with differing tastes, receive brand sponsorships, gain opportunities in and out of my field, and add followers who are invested in the work that I am doing? I’m not sure that I really know at the moment. But for anybody else who has found themselves in a similar situation, I can tell you that it is important to set standards for yourself and move forward with integrity. If you have integrity, no matter the outcome, you will always look back and be proud that you didn’t sell out to get ahead. I have chosen to move forward with integrity and am trying to set certain standards in my social media practices. Photographs that include nudity will only be shared if they are artistic and tasteful. Footage of myself dancing my own choreography in a class will only take place if I am regularly posting footage of my actual students dancing it with me, my attention is focused on them for the entirety of the class, and filming doesn’t take place more than once or twice a month. And, lastly, I will build an audience based purely off of people who want to follow me, and not off of some idea of reciprocity where somebody disinterested in my content will follow me only because I have followed them.

With all of this said, I am curious if you have found yourself in this same type of situation. Do you have a wide range of audience members and have trouble making sure that your content is completely appropriate for all of your viewers? What do you think of posts where the teacher is dancing front and center in a class they are supposed to be teaching? Do you believe that you should build your audience and then cultivate content to keep them interested or that you should only seek out followers who found you because they initially liked your content? Feel free to leave a comment here or to reach out to me on Instagram to let me know your thoughts!

IMG_1168
A recent Instagram post of the sunset from my bedroom window

Sharing Your Art – Perfectionism vs. Pretension

IMG_E1093
Sharing our art form with some of my students at Greenwich Ballet Academy

As professional artists, we have worked very hard to perfect our art. In fact, for many of us, our entire lives have been dedicated to perfectionist acts in order to understand, live, and share our art form. For me, it sometimes feels like there is nothing more important than the refinement process in the studio, the artistic process in the psyche, and the exploratory process in the form of play, trial, and error. But at times, I catch myself sharing my artistic practices (something I care about very deeply) as if they have more value than anything else in the world. I’ve wondered over the years whether this makes me impassioned or gives off an air of pretension.

During my time dancing with Pacific Northwest Ballet, I was extremely unaware of the insular artistic bubble that I existed in. While dancing for this high-end organization for 7 seasons, dozens of highly qualified artists worked diligently daily beside one another using collaboration and competition to boost one another to the next level of perfectionism. This works well on an insular level. But it also tends to dissolve an artist’s reality outside of this bubble, as it requires an intense level of commitment and effort. Striving for perfection daily along with constant peer-to-peer comparison creates an atmosphere of exponential growth. But it also cultivates a sense of judgment that (while helpful and understood within our tight-knit community) bled outside of our thickly insulated bubble. This often led to intense scrutiny of all things across our art form as if they were all being judged by the same standards as we were, albeit not sharing our company history or budget. It took me leaving this intense, safe atmosphere to recognize the benefits and downfalls of having a mentality that the work we were doing was more important than most anything else. This was a place where anybody who wasn’t achieving an equally high standard as we were could be judged using words including bad, fat, unmusical, cheap, awful, weak, unqualified, and a variety of other negative descriptions. While this may appear as perfectionist behavior within one community, it may project as pretentious if these unwelcome opinions are shared.

Every dance artist has to start somewhere. Aside from maybe one or two prodigies in every generation that passes by, practically no dancer naturally begins performing technical exercises with perfection, maintains perfect physical form at all times, dances with immaculate musicality, or exudes the inner soul of every character they portray. Most of us start out with recreational intentions. And many of us do so without regards to how our feet are pointed, how fit we are, or how it makes us feel emotionally. All of these characteristics plus passion must be cultivated within an artist over a period of time without judgment beyond constructive individualized criticism. Similarly, all audiences must be shown why it is important for them to be involved in any cultural institution. If we present artists with expectations of pure perfection before they are ready to put that pressure upon themselves, it will be impossible to build the future of our art form.

CBC-5
Sharing a lighter moment w/my dancers at Columbia Ballet Collaborative (Photo: Eduardo Patino)

In my own personal practice as a dance educator and choreographer, I have found myself exploring the practice of making our art form important to my students without coming off as pretentious about the need for extreme effort, motivation, and artistry. Just because I had success in my performance career and love what I do doesn’t mean that anybody who enters my classroom will share the same sentiment as me. Just because I tell a student that something is important doesn’t mean it actually is to them. What I try to do is slowly educate those in my classes about all aspects of our art form. By adding interesting trivia questions at the beginning of class, I subtly educate students on American (and sometimes international) dance culture. Whether listing off major, regional, and civic dance companies, to explaining the company rankings, offering details on full length and one act works, the internal administrative and artistic workings of a company, and choreographers of note, I offer information that a student can take home with them and research if they find it interesting. Beyond this, I use other tactics to motivate physical and artistic development. Only when we pique a blossoming artist’s interest can dance become something more than an after-school activity.

When I first started teaching, I expected dancers to work hard because I already had them in my classroom. What I found was that many dancers didn’t understand why they had to work hard or know how to work hard in a way that was effective. My perfectionist tendencies would project onto students and come off as pretentious because they had not yet bought into the process or the need to create a sense of importance around their work in the studio. It is necessary to buy-in to do many tasks that artists do. Why do I care that I am holding my leg at or above 90 degrees for 8 counts? Why does it matter if I do or don’t let my standing leg give out in a pirouette. Lately, I have found myself telling students that, in the grand scheme of the world, it isn’t important that they want to do these things. But in order to accomplish these feats, it is integral that in those moments they are working in class or onstage that they feel that the work is the most important thing on earth. Only then can we accomplish superhuman feats. But it is also important while working with impressionable students (young to senior) that we remind them that there is a reality outside of our beautiful art form that must be recognized.

Looking at the separation between pretension and perfection in our art form also lies in who we are interacting with and how we respond to others that we feel haven’t yet obtained the same level of execution or understanding that we have. If something is important to me, but not you, and I really push the point, I may come off as pretentious. We too often share the tendency to tear down others in their process of finding artistic excellence, especially without consideration for where they came from and where they are going. I remember when I first started my 4 years freelancing with multiple established and fledgling professional organizations across the country. Only having the standards that surrounded me during my time dancing at PNB, I judgmentally felt that anything that wasn’t on the level of work that I had been a part of during my tenure there was either bad, dysfunctional, or laughable. I was afraid to share some of what I was doing publicly for fear of humiliation when viewed through the eyes of my former colleagues. But what I learned throughout this period was one of the most important lessons I’ve learned throughout the entirety of my nearly 16 year career, thus far. We must remember that we are not all dancing along parallel tracks of artistic growth and expectation. We all exist in different stages of our art form and all have different purposes that can grow or reroute at any time.  A great example of this can be seen in the differences between dance organizations across the country. Some regional dance companies are still in the audience education period of their organization’s growth. Yes, their practices may currently be flawed. Yes, the quality of their performances may pale in comparison to companies with multi-million dollar budgets. But most of the nation’s finest cultural institutions started this way. Look at American Ballet Theatre. When they were merely just Ballet Theatre touring around the country by bus and performing in any and every theatre possible, they probably didn’t have the finest quality productions. Additionally, there was no nationwide comparison to vouch for the quality of these dancers. But look at them today. They are one of the leading arts organizations in the world.

The important thing to recognize here is that all artists are an important part of our community, whatever stage they are at in our art form. And in order to continue cultivating dance into a sustainable place, we must develop the importance of perfectionist actions through a carefully curated process that neither pushes potential artists away from the art form, nor tears down working artists that are not quite as far down their professional path as you are. If a young dancer stops training because the teacher doesn’t slowly allow them to explore why our art form is important, we have failed. If younger arts organizations try to force their audience to understand our art form too quickly, people will look at the organization as if they are pretentious and the company may begin to lose support. Without community support an arts organization can no longer exist. Pretension is a turn off that slows down or completely halts the progress of our art. For this reason, it is so important that we don’t let our own personal or “insular-bubble” perfectionism project unto others. Instead, I find it best to offer a helping hand that is ready to offer guidance and insight only when an artist is ready to accept it.